Thursday, May 8, 2008
A handful of states, including Vermont, have long banned the placement of billboards along the state’s roads. But in an effort to protect a cute painted barn mural with a 1940s-looking car on it that says, “See Bellows Falls, Vermont” (check this link for a picture), the state legislature passed last week an exemption to the much cherished billboard ban. (A state agency earlier had ordered the mural taken down (or, more likely, painted over)). The exemption would allow –- uh, essentially the Bellows Falls mural: the signs would have to be hand-painted, on an old building, give only directions to a town, and be not far from the town promoted. But the exemption is generating a lot of hand-wringing in Vermont, where some see it as a crack in a dam that could lead to Vermont’s resembling a tacky suburban retail strip on a Saturday afternoon.
I’ve never quite understood the dislike of billboards. In my memory, billboards bring to mind the quaint “South of the Border” signs (advertising a restaurant just over the state line in South Carolina) that I used to look for as a kid in my parents’ ’71 Falcon station wagon as it rumbled its way south to Florida. Or old “Drive through a tree – only 20 miles ahead!” billboards wilting in the rain of coastal Oregon. One of my favorite writers, the late westerner Edward Abbey, thought that it was silly to protect the “beauty” of roads and their views. It’s when one gets OFF the road and into the forests, mountains, and meadows, on one’s two feet, that one finds the true beauty of a state such as Utah or Vermont.
And it also seems a bit naïve to believe that a motorist who is driving with a GPS screen in their face, ads blaring on the satellite radio, and the kids chortling to a screaming DVD in the back will be disappointed by the low-tech intrusion of billboards on Vermont roads.
It’s usually bad policy to craft a legal rule that is focused on one discrete person or act. But I’m glad that the barn mural gets to stay. Now, I must get back to planning a summer vacation. Hey, I’ve heard that Bellows Falls, Vermont, is quaint …